From kissing goodbye to not dating to eating LGBT “rainbow donuts,” Josh Harris is full of surprises these days.
Surprises and, for believers, news of great sadness.
And more than feeling sadness, some believers have been shaken by Harris’s defection from the faith and decision to divorce his wife. Understandably so. His ministry has been national and his books widely-read.
Harris is not the only Christian leader who, in recent years, has either abandoned his faith or been shown to be walking in hypocrisy. James McDonald, Ted Haggard, and Bill Hybels are but three memorable examples.
Should the failings of some leaders shake our own confidence in Christ?
First, the Bible’s answer is a clear “no.” Consider David, the “man after God’s own heart.” He had Uriah murdered, committed adultery, and, as a young man, was a ferocious warrior. The Lord told David that his hands were too bloody to build His temple.
Yet David always repented and was used by God in so many ways. He wrote inspired Psalms millions read every day. He was a man of great faith in his King and Commander who acted with bravery and faithfulness. He raised a son who became “the wisest man on earth.”
There are many other similar examples, including the disciples who fled from Jesus at His moment of greatest trial but who then came back to Him. Under the power of His Spirit, they “turned the world upside down” with the Gospel.
The issue for these men was repentance. They turned from their rebellion to their Lord and submitted again to Him. Like prodigal sons, they came back to the embrace of their Father and once again enjoyed both His fellowship and their usefulness to Him.
Second, there’s also another issue: What about a Christian leader’s blind spots? Things he refuses to recognize as sin or that are so embedded in his worldview that he’s not even aware they are present?
One of my personal heroes is J. Gresham Machen. His refusal to compromise the Gospel cost him dearly, including a top post at Princeton Theological Seminary and his leadership in the Presbyterian Church. A brilliant theologian, his books and articles defined Protestant orthodoxy in his day, and many are still in print. His scholarship was informed by his faithfulness to Christ.
Yet Machen was a racist. He actively opposed allowing African-Americans to attend Princeton Seminary and referred to blacks as “savages of a type.” This is more than disappointing; it is sickening. The fact that Machen was the grandson of slave-owners and a Southerner does not give him an “out.” He knew the Bible’s clear affirmation of the equality of all people before God. He knew the interracial nature of the early church. He knew Paul’s teaching to the philosophers of Athens that everyone descended from a common parent (Acts 17:26).
Nothing can justify Machen’s bigotry. But this glaring sin does not diminish his moral courage and his commitment to the essential truths of historic Christianity.
To my knowledge, Machen never repented of his racism. This did not stop God from using him in other areas, however. We can still learn much from the life and teaching of J. Gresham Machen. But one of these lessons is to beware of sins that lurk like a hidden disease. When they are revealed, let’s not pretend they are not really sin or refuse even to acknowledge their existence. Let’s repent of them.
Third, there are many Godly leaders who live lives “above reproach” and who walk faithfully from this life into one that is eternal. They are men and women of integrity, courage, and fidelity to “the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:2).
I doubt anyone reading this piece has ever heard of Wilbur Antisdale. He was my pastor from the time I was a small boy through my college years. His was the very picture of a holy life. A wonderful marriage and family. A serious student of the Word of God, which he proclaimed boldly. A wise counselor. A man equally at home with men of high finance and men of none.
There are thousands of Wilbur Antisdales, and always have been. They are not famous, but labor with honor for the coming King. And the fact that a Christian “celebrity” fails does not diminish the effectiveness or witness of these “unknown” faithful men and women.
As to people in the public eye whom we too often put on a pedestal, some are consistently admirable. But none are flawless. There is only one Man to Whom we can look with complete confidence. His character was perfect. His nature was unstained by sin, His judgments unclouded by pride, His actions grounded in a unique wedding of grace and truth.
Whether or not Josh Harris returns to biblical faith or not, we need to pray for him (and his wife and children). We should also pray for other Christian leaders who have spurned their faith in belief or practice. And pray for ourselves, that we will remain faithful to Christ until death itself.
Rob Schwarzwalder is senior lecturer and director at the Center for Christian Thought and Action, Regent University.